If you have ever had your fortune read with tarot, you owe the experience to Marie-Anne Lenormand, an 18th and 19th century French cartomancer who popularized the art of card divination.
“She remembers,” writes one who was much in communication with her between the years 1811 and 1813, “having a singular power of observation and imagination since she was seven years old, and an expression she often uses, in reference to that period of her life, is — I was a waking somnambulist.”
Legend has it Mlle Lenormand, orphaned in childhood, received her first deck from a Romani fortune teller as a young teenager; whether that is true or not is anybody’s guess. (My guess–probably not.) This would not have been her first foray into fortune telling though. It is said that Mlle Lenormand told the superior at her Benedictine school that she would soon lose her position and even identified her replacement. Lenormand was punished, but supposedly the prediction came to pass.
We do know that early on in her career she used astrology and palmistry as well as a deck designed by occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738 – 1791). The Etteilla deck was the first set of cards created specifically for divination. (It is hotly debated whether other decks were previously used for this purpose by Europeans or not.) However, the practice of cartomancy was apparently not fashionable until Lenormand began giving eerily prescient advice to France’s rich and famous–including Empress Josephine.
At an early age, Paris became her abode, and here we find her, in her seventeenth year, already embarked in the profession of a fortune-teller, and applying herself with ardour to the study of astronomy and algebra, the knowledge of which she believed indispensable to the perfection she aimed at in the divinatory art.
She rose rapdily into note. The persons who came, led perhaps more by curiosity than by credulity, to test her prophetic powers, were confounded by the acquaintance she displayed with the most secret details of their past history, and learned to place a reluctant confidence, at variance with all their habits of thought, in her predictions of the future.
There are many tales surrounding Mlle Lenormand which are difficult to prove–for instance, was she intimately involved with a plot to free Marie Anoinette not long before the Queen’s grisly end at the guillotine?
Lenormand’s connexion with this enterprise led to her own arrest, and she found herself an inmate of the prison of the Petite Force, from which she was afterwards removed to that of the Luxembourg. Although at this time the “reign of terror” had already begun its course of blood, and the citizen once breathed on by suspicion–especially of royalist plotting–had little to do but prepare for the guillotine, Lenormand was no way frightened by this turn in her affairs, her astrological calculations assuring her, as she said, that her life was safe, and that her imprisonment would not be of long duration.
Of course she did survive, as we know, and it was during her imprisonment she met Madam de Beauharnais, wife of aristocrat Alexandre de Beauharnais, the future Mrs. Bonaparte herself. Mlle Lenormand assured Madame de Beauharnais that she would survive the ordeal and go on to marry a soldier who would rise to great power. The unfortunate Monsieur de Beauharnais did make it out of the Luxembourg prison with his head, but his widow did go on to fulfill Lenormand’s prophecy, which all said and done must have been quite a startling and life-changing experience for poor Josephine.
Detractors say that Lenormand embellished aspects of her life story. But she was never accused of being an outright fake, and she was powerful and charismatic enough to worry Napoleon, who at best frowned upon her relationship with his wife Joesphine and at worst believed Lenormand was a spy. This may be partly because “it is said (though on doubtful authority) that she foretold him the successive stages of the career her was destined to run–his elevation to the summit of power, his fall, and his death in exile.”
Due to the pall of suspicion surrounding her, and the dubious nature of her profession, Lenormand was arrested multiple times. Each time she was unconcerned about her fate. She was even a bit cocky about it.
…it was on the 11th of December, 1809, when, being pressed to explain an obscure answer she had just given to some questions which had been addressed to her, she said, “My answer is a problem, the solution of which I reserve till the 31st of March, 1814.” What the question was, to which this reply was given, does not appear, but we hardly need to remind the reader that, eight days beforem the fifth anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation had been celebrated with a splendour enhanced by the presence of five of his royal vassals, the kings of Saxony, Westphalia, Wirtemberg, Holland, and Naples; and that on the day named by Lenormand for the solution of her “problem”–the allies entered Paris.
Beginning with her memoir Les Souvenirs Prophetiques in 1814, Mlle Lenormand also became a bestselling author, penning 15 volumes or so in total.
Her predictions were often said to be true, by people in high positions, some of whom gave their testimonial on condition of anonymity, some of whom had no scruples about revealing their identities in order to lend more credence to their claims. Their tales are recounted in detail, from the disguised Countess and her companion, to the Spanish officer who tried to avoid her prediction but could not, to the Doctor who only agreed to visit her after being teased into it by his friends, and was astonished by her accuracy.
We offer no opinion on the above, except that it is “curious”. “True” we must presume it, coming, as it does, not from a professional inditer of fugitive romance, but from a grave man, with a character to lose–a man of arithmetic and red tape, and such solid realities of life–whose only flight of imagination, that we can find any trace of, was that very high, but very brief one, of accepting the office of “liquidator of the national debt.”
But there is at least one prediction Mlle Lenormand was wrong about. The authors conclude their 1847 Dublin University Magazine piece by saying they “do not know whether Mademoiselle Lenormand is still living. She ought not to be dead, for she told Countess N.N., in 1812, that she was sure of completing her hundred-and-eighth year.” I regret to inform them that they wrote about Mlle Lenormand posthumously, as she did not reach her hundred-and-eighth year, but passed in 1843. (Sidenote: May this also serve as an example of the slow receipt of and access to information prior to the modern age.)
After Mlle Lenormand left the physical plane for the astral one, a new divination deck was named for her, which you can still buy today, either as an antique:
Or as a loyal reproduction of the original:
Or even as a new release from Lo Scarabeo:
Try one for yourself. You never know what you might discover…